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Thoughts: Did the Roman Empire Really Fall?

January 13, 2018

Or was it a transition?

It is the tradition belief that Rome fell. This is what is taught is schools, this is what is depicted in movies. I will suggest an alternative perspective that Rome did not actually “fall”, in the quick collapse of an empire sort of way, but instead it transitioned into a fragmented empire often called Byzantium that existed for over 1000 years.

The cause remains the same. An over-extended empire that sowed the seeds of its own fall. How? When you incorporate your enemies into your empire, such as the stubborn Germanic people who were not loyal to Rome, they might sabotage you. When you over-tax people and over-rely on slave labor that can dry up after conquests slowed down will force you to inflate your currency to pay people. When money goes to the church and not society, it disappears. No good system of replacing the emperor, which prevented continuous and reliable rule.

Here is a quick history:

  • 476 CE: Rome is first conquered by Balkan barbarians led by Flavius Odoacer who led the Eastern Germanic people known as the Goths (Visigoth, Ostrogoth). Romulus Augustus was the emperor of Rome at the time (he lasted one year), which is interesting because history suggests Rome was founded by a guy also named Romulus around 753 BC. Never again was there a Roman emperor in Rome. It was controlled by the church (Pope) and various northern armies, including the Goths, Lombards, Franks, Huns, and Vandals. This date is considered important in textbooks as a turning point, however most primary texts suggest not much changed in the lifestyle of the people of Rome. The leader of Rome had changed so many times (30 in the 3rd century CE alone) in the last 200 years that many people just considered it another Ivory Tower Coup.
  • When Constantine felt the fragility of the Empire, he moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). The west, based in Rome, was plagued with wars and factious lordships. Meanwhile, the East, based in Constantinople and called Byzantium, began to develop. In 330, Constantine moved the center of the Empire to be close to the Persians in order to conquer them and take their wealth, avoid the annoying tribal wars of the west, and to consolidate his power by unifying Rome under Christianity.
  • The East (Byzantium) was still hellenic while the west was Christian and stayed Christian in part because the church blamed the Hellenic gods for the misfortune. Constantine tried to change that so that he could be control the entire Roman empire and have power over the church which took control in the Rome (West). In the East, the style of religion was slightly different (Greek Eastern Orthodox vs. Roman Catholic). The main difference relates to the control of power in each empire. The Roman Catholic church was led by the Pope, who is essentially the emperor and does not answer to secular rulers. The GEO church was led by a Patriarch, who was appointed by the Emperor (see: Caesaropapism). Also, Byzantium spoke Greek instead of Latin. The two separate empires coexisted for 146 years until the last Roman Emperor fell in 476 CE.
  • The Byzantine Empire lasted until Ottoman conquest in 1453. Until then, beyond the church and language system, Byzantium was essentially like pt. 2 of the Roman Empire. The Byzantine people even called themselves Roman until after the Ottomans took Constantinople in 1453. Thus, it should be understood that Byzantium grew out of the Eastern Roman Empire. Meanwhile, the Western Roman Empire languished under wars with northern tribes.
  • Further, Byzantium was based largely on the legal structures of the Roman Empire. Justinian who ruled from 482 to 565 codified many laws and legal teachings and incorporated those into Byzantium. In many ways, these legal codes became the foundation for western civil society. Also, he built a little church that is now a mosque called the Hagia Sophia.
  • In the next few hundred years, wars with Persian, Slavs, Arabs, and Turks damaged the Byzantine Empire from the East. This caused a very important political shift. Since the Roman Empire, the separation of the civil and military bodies existed in order to prevent military leaders from gaining sociopolitical power and staging a coup. However, with the increasing threat from the eastern empires, the Byzantine territories were converted into military districts controlled by an army commander in order to have a more efficient ruling system. During this time, incidentally, influence from the east changed the culture of these regions and created a culture distinct in many ways from the Western Roman Empire.
  • Similar to the feudal system, these districts were called themes and increasingly became independent. With all the fighting, Byzantium had lost many of its richest provinces and were not able to focus on production or expansion of wealth. The empire started to convert into a poor and segmented agrarian economy where the land owners had influence over the military and did not need to obey the central authority of emperors as tightly. As this happened, the landowners would often increase taxes by their own regard, which caused internal unrest and destabilization in multiple parts of the empire.
  • Nevertheless, although weakened, the Byzantine Empire continued to exist and even conquered Bulgaria, Serbia, Russian, Crete, Cyprus, and most of Syria, in the name of the Orthodox Church. It continued to survive along with what still existed of the also weakened Western Roman Empire. However, both empires waned in power. The West being handed back and forth to European tribal empires and the East fighting to survive again the Arab crusades.
  • 1054 AD. The Great Schism.Ā I will stop here. This was a big divided between the Orthodox and Catholic church that caused problems between the Holy Roman Empire (West) and Byzantium. Then came the Crusades. Then came the Ottomans. etc. etc.

Have a great weekend!

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